In late November 1999, the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) aired a special episode of The Listening Room on the subject of Istanbul’s soundscape.

Turkish men supplement their income by fishing off Istanbul’s Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn waterway, with the 16th-century Ottoman Suleymaniye Mosque in the background. March 2023. David Silverman/Getty Images

Correspondent Harvey Broadbent had traveled through Istanbul recording the call to prayer, the waves of the Bosporus, the bustling hallways of the Grand Bazaar, random street musicians and even the concerns of a dissident Turkish intellectual. The recordings were all taken on a single Sunday on the assumption that a weekend would allow local residents to be modestly contemplative. Interwoven with the eavesdropped sounds of Istanbul was a melancholic recitation of Istanbul’u Dinliyorum (“I am Listening to Istanbul”). The poem by Orhan Veli (1914–1950) is one of the Turkish language’s most enduring. The work is well known for its voyeurism and informal language that appealed to the near-universal love for the city. As George Messo’s 2016 English translation renders it:

I’m listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed.
First a gentle breeze
Slowly swaying
Leaves on the trees,
Far off, very far off
The water seller’s unceasing bells.
I’m listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed.[1]

By anchoring all six stanzas with a corresponding urban recording, the episode was an admirable reflection on Istanbul’s soundscape with brief digressions into the socio-political controversies of the 1990s. But the pairing of text and sound, perhaps unintentionally, also highlighted the radical transformation the city had experienced since Veli’s lifetime. If “I am Listening to Istanbul” leans into the natural and urban sounds of metropolitan life—the presumed auditory veil for your average early republic pedestrian—Broadbent’s episode was often overwhelmed with sounds of traffic and unidentifiable cacophony.

In the two decades since Broadbent’s recording, congestion has only intensified as a legion of small and large-scale government projects—some of which themselves claim to be in the name of Turkey’s green spaces—have collectively increased traffic and consumed the city’s nature. With October 29, 2023 marking the Turkish Republic’s 100-year anniversary, Veli’s voice endures as a persistent challenge to the city’s unfettered urbanization and commodification. “I am Listening to Istanbul” and Veli’s wider oeuvre preserve the memory of a metropolis at ease with nature.


Orhan Veli, the “Hedonist”


Born in 1914, midway into the Second Constitutional Era, and educated during the early republic years of the 1920s and 1930s, Veli was raised in a politically turbulent yet intellectually experimental period. Various bureaucratic hegemons rose and fell, censorship laws relaxed and tightened and traditional ideologies publicly quarreled with state secularism. Meanwhile, European intellectual trends gradually permeated Turkish artistic discourse.

Poetry, Veli’s object of devotion from a young age, also transformed with the times. Ottoman poetry had once been defined by traditional composition and perplexing metaphors, dealing with metaphysical observations that often involved panegyric proclamations or abstract commentaries on love. But with French modernism and nascent Turkish free verse making inroads, young poets like Veli began exploring a wider range of aesthetic expression, challenging the style, meter and topics of the literary establishment. To Veli and a group of like-minded contemporaries, traditional poetry also seemed aesthetically divorced from an average Turk’s everyday sensory and emotional experience. In a controversial 1941 manifesto, they declared their intention to explore “people’s tastes, to determine them, and to make them reign supreme over art.”[2] Veli aspired, through his verse, “to speak of and for the man in the street,” as one biographer noted, inaugurating a new era in Turkish poetry.[3] Veli’s short-lived literary career would later delve into personal existential concerns and reintroduce certain elements of traditional composition, but he continued to examine what he saw as the average Turk’s sense of place until his untimely death in 1950.

To Veli and a group of like-minded contemporaries, traditional poetry also seemed aesthetically divorced from an average Turk’s everyday sensory and emotional experience.

It is not entirely clear why Veli became a scandalous self-appointed literary advocate for the working class. His irritation with the intellectual milieu did coincide with his exposure to the leftist politics of the socialist playwright Nazim Hikmet (1902–1963) and the short stories of Sait Faik Abasiyanik (1906–1954) that explored the harsh realities of the Turkish underclass. But Veli was rarely overtly political, nor did he demonstrate an abiding interest in highlighting brutal working conditions or unemployment hopelessness. Rather, much of his poetry was grounded in the monotony of urban life. He was admittedly an educated “hedonist,” as he once referred to himself, largely isolated from the socio-economic conditions of the working-class.[4] But much of his poetry seems to reference aspects of their lives he could empathize with. As a result, Veli’s corpus is brimming with household chores, brushes with love, gossip, alienation and, of course, the experience of traversing a metropolitan landscape teeming with nature. The second and third stanzas of “I am listening to Istanbul” are particularly interested in a pedestrian’s irregular yet panoramic view of Istanbul’s urban scenery:

I’m listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed.
Birds are passing by,
High up, in flocks, screeching,
Nets are being drawn from fish traps,
A woman dips her feet in water
I’m listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed.

I’m listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed.
The cool air of the Grand Bazaar,
The bustle of Mahmutpaşa,
Courtyards full of pigeons,
Hammer blows from dockyards,
Smell of sweat in a sweet summer breeze.
I’m listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed.


Istanbul’s Urban Transformation


In the late Ottoman and early years of the Republic, Istanbul’s lush green spaces enveloped a typical resident’s weekly routine. While individual households tended to small gardens, local farming enclosures known as bostan grew an assortment of fruits, vegetables and nuts for their local communities. Often managed by Istanbul’s minority communities—Bulgarian, Albanian, Armenian—each region’s soil and climate yielded unique produce. The famous Yedikule bostan that once ran along the city’s western walls produced soft and fatty lettuce. Arnavutköy—a rural neighborhood locals affectionately referred to as “the hill”—was famous for its extremely fragrant pink strawberries, while gardens from the north yielded Kavak figs with thin edible skins. Natural springs, artificial fountains, mosque wells and tall cypress trees randomly dotted individual neighborhoods in conjunction with the natural topography.

European artificial grids were quite rare in most Turkish cities. It seems unimaginable now, but certain districts were also defined by their vast plots of greenery that often seeped into the banks of the Bosphorus, used by locals as informal recreational spaces. The banks themselves were full of meadows alongside parks, gardens and cemeteries, giving the impression that the city was submerged in large pockets of groves. Formal public parks with panoramic views and German-designed imperial gardens filled with exotic trees, sculptures, pools and bird baths, led one Iranian traveler to refer to the city as a “second Paris.”[5]

By the time Broadbent was recording the sounds of Istanbul, the city had undergone a series of drastic urban transformations that completely reshaped its landscape and soundscape. Intense industrialization following World War II led to decades of rural-urban migration, rapidly accelerating the city’s population density. Due to government corruption and negligence, migrants were forced to build densely packed and poorly constructed shacks known as gecekondus on the outskirts of the city. Simultaneously, from the 1950s onward, buildings and green spaces were torn down to build new roads or widen existing ones to accommodate, if not encourage, the use of motor vehicles. “Let traffic flow like water” became a popular infrastructure slogan, as a city of 20,000 vehicles in the late 1940s ballooned into a modernizing metropolis of over 100,000 by 1960.[6]

The rapid globalization and privatization of the 1980s ushered in a new era of large-scale construction and gentrification that aggressively pushed Istanbul’s green space to the city’s periphery. The municipal government prioritized the construction of high-rise offices over affordable housing. Traffic jams were routine and Istanbul’s population exploded. Between 1980 and 1985, Istanbul’s residents doubled from 3 to 6 million, and by the time Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first became Prime Minister in 2003, the population had reached nearly 12 million.

Also Read: “The Destructive Dreams of AKP Urbanism MER issue 287, Summer 2018.
These trends have only intensified during Erdoğan’s tenure as head of state. By the 2000s, public land had been largely commodified after decades of unresolved complications related to titles, title deeds, inheritance and cadastral operations, allowing Erdoğan’s newly empowered Justice and Development Party (AKP) to push for an even more aggressive top-down market economy.[7] Development initiatives included everything from the controversial Housing Development Administration (TOKI) from the 2000s onward, which forced multiple working-class families out of their residential spaces, to a government plan that aimed to build an Ottoman-style barracks and shopping mall over a prominent park—a failed venture that initiated the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Subsequent megaprojects, such as the construction of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge (2016), the new Istanbul Airport (2018) and the ongoing Istanbul Canal project, have further endangered, if not jeopardized, Istanbul’s northern forestry and water basin.

Even before the construction of these megaprojects, the World Cities Culture Forum concluded in 2015 that Istanbul maintained only 2.2 percent of its green space, falling far below London (33 percent) and trailing the much criticized urban development of Tokyo, which retains 7.5 percent of its green space. A 2020 report by the Istanbul Planning Agency estimated accessible green space in Istanbul to be a mere 2.67 square meters per person. The TomTom Traffic Index has recently deemed the metropolis the most congested in the world, and recent surveys by Pinar Yelmi—who curates a website dedicated to Istanbul’s urban soundscape—suggest most Istanbul residents associate it with traffic, crowds and construction.[8]

For caretakers of the few remaining bostans, Istanbul’s rapid urbanization is existential, threatening their livelihoods and decades of agricultural knowledge. Whether they are recent immigrants from the Black Sea province of Kastamonu or ethnic minorities still toiling on the lands of their ancestors, these gardeners take great pride in specialized techniques that factor in each region’s soil and climate. Almost 20 years ago, geologist Paul J. Kaldjian conducted interviews with Istanbul’s gardeners. One, named Cafer, told him, “The most important thing is that there shouldn’t be any construction in the places that are good for agriculture.” Another, Yaşar, echoed this sentiment: “Building is good, but you shouldn’t destroy the landscape.”[9]

In 2016, one city official referred to gardening activities as “visual pollution that can be seen by anyone passing by,” in order to justify the construction of new recreational spaces, often on top of these ancient gardens.
During the past decade, what remains of the Yedikule bostans has been targeted for development by the AKP and municipal governments. In 2016, one city official referred to gardening activities as “visual pollution that can be seen by anyone passing by,” in order to justify the construction of new recreational spaces, often on top of these ancient gardens.[10] In June of 2018, when running for reelection, Erdoğan began to tout his own set of green development projects, including plans to establish new, curated public green spaces, or millet bahçeleri (people’s parks)—a deliberate reference to Istanbul’s first official parks of the late Ottoman period. In a ceremony accompanying the establishment of five new gardens in December of 2018, Erdoğan harkened back to Gezi, “those who wreck and destroy in the name of environmentalism, the perpetrators of Gezi events…should check out these gardens of the nation and see what real environmentalism is.”[11] Even with the election of opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu in 2019, which reprioritized Istanbul to construct parks that could function as emergency shelters and pushed back against the creation of these millet bahçeleri, Erdoğan’s hold on the presidency has allowed the AKP’s green initiatives to continue.

In response, urban activists and local farmers—who describe the new parks as over-curated and hyper-regulated—have developed a phrase known as yaşam alanı (life space). Connoting urban areas that provide refuge from both commodification and hyper-development, the term gained noticeable traction during the 2013 Gezi Protests, quickly establishing itself as a popular slogan for Turkish environmentalism. Professional organizations such as the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (Türk Mühendis ve Mimar Odaları Birliği, or TMMOB) have adopted the expression, framing it as an alternative to a system that “turns cities and the nature surrounding them” into marketable goods.[12]


Nostalgia for the Past


Read while contemplating a contemporary Istanbul overwhelmed with concrete and cacophony, much of Veli’s poetry seems to unassumingly present nature as bleeding into the urban. For example, his 1949 poem, “For Free,” is undergirded by a structure that leads our eyes from the air and clouds to the valleys and hills, through the rain and mud and finally to car bodies, cinema doors and display windows. This interwoven urban-nature backdrop, which works to draw attention to the poverty and lack of political freedom of the early republic, seems almost frisky:

We’re living for free, for free;
Air is free, clouds are free
Valleys and hills are free;
Rain and mud are for free;
Car bodies
Cinema doors
Display windows are free;
Not so for bread and cheese
But saltwater’s free;
Freedom costs you your head;
Slavery is free;
We’re living for free, for free.

Viewed through the lens of the city’s hundreds of displaced working-class residents, bostan gardeners or the memories of an earlier urban landscape, the poem is somber. But when contemplating the strain of Istanbul’s current food inflation rate, or pressure of the Directorate of Communications, which controls roughly 90 percent of newsrooms and suppresses oppositional media, Veli’s words are almost prophetic.

In his famous “Galata Bridge,” a reference to the then-beloved floating bridge in Istanbul, Veli goes a step further. According to Ian Almond, the largely “secular” poet exhibits a Sufi-inspired “urban pantheism,” where Istanbul itself resides in the various facets of urban life:[13]

Planted on Galata Bridge
I happily watch you all.
Some are pulling on oars,
Some scrape mussels off pontoons,
Some hold the rudders of barges,
Some are coiling ropes,
Some are birds, flying, like poems,
Some are fish, glittering
Some are ferries, some are buoys,
Some are clouds up high

But all of them are you, you…
Busy with the pull and thrust of life.
Am I the only hedonist here?

As Veli strolls along the famed Galata Bridge, he peers into the seemingly mundane and overlooked segments of the city—workers, birds, boats, clouds—observing them as manifestations of the city itself: “But all of them are you, you…” One doesn’t have to subscribe to his metaphysical outlook to appreciate the fact Istanbul was once a city where its inhabitants drank from springs, bought produce from the local bostan, sought blessings from Sufi shrines and labored along the banks of the Bosphorus.

Despite the dwindling green space and increasing urban clamor, Istanbul is still a city whose inhabitants seek to indulge in their natural surroundings, evidenced by communal efforts to maintain urban gardens and individual attempts to find refuge from the obtrusive sounds of the city.
Despite the dwindling green space and increasing urban clamor, Istanbul is still a city whose inhabitants seek to indulge in their natural surroundings, evidenced by communal efforts to maintain urban gardens and individual attempts to find refuge from the obtrusive sounds of the city. Older locals still remember the taste of Arnavutköy strawberries and Kavak figs, while musicians such as Emre Yucelen record less urbanized parts of the city for personal relaxation and meditation. Recitations of “I am Listening to Istanbul” itself can be heard from the Aşiyan Asri Cemetery, a stunning green space known for its view of the Bosphorus. It also happens to be the burial ground where Veli and other literary luminaries have been laid to rest.

Urban development itself also seems to be losing support. When asked in a 2020 Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality survey, “Who do you think needs the Istanbul Canal Project?” 62.3 percent of respondents replied either land speculators, construction companies or the government’s lenders, while only 35 percent responded with “the people of Istanbul.”[14]

It would be a mistake to romanticize Veli’s Istanbul. Class, ethnic and gender segregation were often enforced in late Ottoman/early republican parks, and there were legitimate crime-related concerns when it came to unregulated recreational areas. The socio-political instability of the early republican period also witnessed the involuntary flight of Istanbul’s minority population, resulting in the state’s expropriation of their properties and the weakening of each community’s respective political clout. The construction of modern green spaces such as the famed Gezi Park was possible in part because Istanbul’s municipality of the 1930s was able to force the Armenian Patriarchate to relinquish its claim on an ancient cemetery. Yet, Veli’s poetry upholds an aesthetic, if not moral, commitment that elevates the perspective of an average Istanbul resident, making their tastes “reign supreme.” By defining Istanbul as urban life bleeding into nature, “I am Listening to Istanbul” and his other poems have helped preserve a sensibility that continues to push up against the concrete and cacophony.

[Niels Lee holds an MA in Religion from Yale University, where Lee studied Ottoman history and religion.]





[1] All of Veli’s poems are from Messo’s translation. Orhan Veli, “I’m listening to Istanbul” in George Messo, trans. and ed. Orhan Veli: Complete Poems (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2016), pp. 105–106.

[2] Talat S. Halman, “‘I am listening to Istanbul’: Orhan Veli Kanik,” in Jayne L. Warner, ed. Rapture and Revolution: Essays on Turkish Literature (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007), p. 343.

[3] Ibid., p. 345.

[4] Orhan Veli, “Galata Bridge” in George Messo, trans. and ed. Orhan Veli: Complete Poems. (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2016), p. 108.

[5] Güllü Yıldız, “Gardens of Istanbul in Persian hajj travelogues,” in Ines Aščerić-Todd, Sabina Knees, Janet Starkey and Paul Starkey, eds. Travellers in Ottoman Lands: The Botanical Legacy (Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing, 2018), pp. 60–66.

[6] Elvan Altan Ergut, İpek Yada Akpınar, and Zafer Akay, “Architecture in Istanbul in the Republican Period,” History of Istanbul, 2019.

[7] Umut Z. Türem, “The State of Property: From the Empire to the Neoliberal Republic,” in Fikret Adaman, Murat Arsel, and Bengi Akbulut, eds. Neoliberal Turkey and its Discontents (London, New York: IB Tauris, 2017), pp. 29–36.

[8] Pinar Yelmi, “The Soundscape of Istanbul: Exploring the Public Awareness of Urban Sounds,” International Journal of Social Science and Humanity 7/5 (May 2017), p. 260–268.

[9] Paul J. Kaldjian, “Istanbul’s Bostans: A Millennium of Market Gardens,” Geographical Review 94/3 (July 2004), p. 287.

[10] Stephen Starr, “Shadow of progress falls on Istanbul’s historic vegetable gardens,” Reuters, March 15, 2017.

[11] Sinan Erensü, Barış İne, and Yaşar Adnan Adanalı, “From the Occupied Parks to the Gardens of the Nation: Politics and Aesthetics of Urban Greenery in the Post-Gezi Istanbul”, Social Text 40/1 (March 2022), pp. 116.

[12] “‘Çevre Mücadelesi’ Küresel Ölçekte ‘Yaşam Alanı Mücadelesi’dir,” TMMOB Chamber of City Planners, June 5, 2015.

[13] Ian Almond, “Sufism, Secularism and Communism in Modem Turkish Poetry: The Persistence of the Mystical in the Work of Nazim Hikmet and Orhan Veli,” Journal of Turkish Literature 11 (2014), pp. 45–49.

[14]64.2 percent of İstanbulites do not support canal project, shows survey,” Bianet, August, 31, 2020.


How to cite this article:

Niels Lee "Orhan Veli’s Poetry and the Struggle to Preserve Istanbul’s Green Spaces," Middle East Report Online, November 01, 2023.

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